Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, a proud and highly respected Igbo from Umuofia, somewhere near theLower Niger. Okonkwo’s clan are farmers and they grow Yam and cassava and practice ancient rituals, some virtuous and some ritual practices may make the readers cringed with dread. It begins with Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, who is lazy and improvident and incurred debts that he can’t pay off till his death. Vowed to become a better man than his father, Okonkwo became the greatest wrestler and warrior alive and hisfame spreads throughoutWest Africa like a bush-fire in harmattan.
Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear o fhis fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whoel life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. – page 10
As fear driven him to power, the higher he is the harder he falls, they say. Okonkwo accidentally kills a clanman and things begin to fall apart as he is forced to remain exile in his motherland for 7 years (note not fatherland, as it is a tradition to be cast off in disgrace to the motherland, a culture thing). Returning to his fatherland Umuofia after 7 years, Okonkwo discovered things are not the same but he is determined to build his wealth and compound in Umuofia and regain his high status in the clan as before. Alas, the English arrive in their region, with the Bible – rather than the gun. As the outcasts join the church, the clan equilibrium become undone and for the first time sectarian strife erupts in the village.
Okonkwo is steadfast in his belief to defend his village and resist the outside force, only to be thrown radically off-balance he can only hurtle towards tragedy.
I came to the book without any preconception and expectation, it caught me by the first page. Achebe gently take me through the upbringing of Okonkwo, it allows me a glimpse of what motivates Okonkwo to be the man that he is. Achebe introduces me to Okonkwo’s family, his wives, especially his second wife Ezinma and his favourite daughter which he wish was his able son, Ekwefi, who understands him; and his eldest son Nwoye who fails him.
Save from reading any anthropology research paper, Acebe tells me as an insider how the African community lives. There is a drinking etiquette that begins with the youngest man pouring palm wine to the eldest man in the group. There is crop that only women would grow: coco-yams, beans and cassava, while the king of crops, the Yam was a man’s crop. The Oracle is powerful and what ever he / she says becomes a decree that must be obey, sometimes to the expense of one’s son or daughter. The clan avenged a death by supplying one of their virgin or a young boy, and that is how a young boy named Ikemefuna came to live with Okonkwo’s family for three years and met with a tragic end which is pivotal to the rebellion of Nwoye, an episode that both shocks and saddens me.
His life had been ruled by a great passion – to become one of the lords of the clan. That had been his life-spring. And he had all but achieved it. Then everything had been broken. He had been cast out of his clan like a fish on to a dray, sandy beach, panting. Clearly his personal god or chi was not made for great things a man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true – that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation. – page 96
This book is set in the late 19th century, at the height of the “Scramble” for African territories by the great European powers. A part of me says the proverbial dark continent of Africa requires some light to free themselves from superstitious beliefs of Oracle worshipping, witch doctors and corpse mutilation then. Another part of me understands the effect of colonial power that weakens the bond of kinship in the clan, which is a shame. No words are as prophetic as the following describes:
“We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so. You may ask why I am saying all this. I say it because I fear for the younger generation, for you people.’ He waved his arm where most of the young men sat. ‘As for me, I have only a short while to live… but I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for the clan” – an elder of the clan said on the day Okonkwo celebrates homecoming to his fatherland. – page 121
Since then Nigeria has experienced its own share of sectarian conflict and political turmoil, and it is still happening today.
Achebe brings me down at the tribal level to understand the daily lives of the African society but also brings me up to understand about the politics, humanity and wisdom of it. At first I thought a 4.5 rating would be fair. After a week of finishing the book, I still feel Okonkwo’s spirit alive, the African singing and dancing, the celebration and the sacrifice in my head. This great novel is so easy to read, so endearing, so shocking, so thought provoking and so uniquely African. This is the first novel in English which spoke from the interior of an African character rather than from a foreign eye. Economical and not a single word wasted, I strongly urge you to read it.
Paperback. Publisher: Penguin Classics 2001, originally published in 1958; Length: 152 pages; Setting: Late 19th Century Nigeria. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading on the 10th June 2012. Reading this for African Challenge hosted by Kinna Read.
About the writer:
Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe (born 16 November 1930) popularly known as Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic. He is best known for his first novel and magnum opus, Things Fall Apart (1958), which is the most widely read book in modern African literature.
Raised by his parents in the Igbo town of Ogidiin southeastern Nigeria, Achebe excelled at school and won a scholarship for undergraduate studies. He became fascinated with world religions and traditional African cultures, and began writing stories as a university student. After graduation, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service and soon moved to the metropolis of Lagos. He gained worldwide attention for Things Fall Apart in the late 1950s; his later novels include No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe writes his novels in English and has defended the use of English, a “language of colonisers”, in African literature.
When the region of Biafra broke away from Nigeriain 1967, Achebe became a supporter of Biafran independence and acted as ambassador for the people of the new nation. The war ravaged the populace, and as starvation and violence took its toll, he appealed to the people of Europe and the Americas for aid. When the Nigerian government retook the region in 1970, he involved himself in political parties but soon resigned due to frustration over the corruption and elitism he witnessed. He lived in the United States for several years in the 1970s, and returned to the U.S.in 1990 after a car accident left him partially disabled.
Achebe’s novels focus on the traditions of Igbo society, the effect of Christian influences, and the clash of Western and Traditional African values during and after the colonial era. His style relies heavily on the Igbo oral tradition, and combines straightforward narration with representations of folk stories, proverbs, and oratory. He has also published a number of short stories, children’s books, and essay collections. Since 2009, he has been the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island,United States. He is the recipient of Ngieria’s highest award for intellectual achievement, the Nigerian National Merit Award. In 2007, he won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction.
First published in 1958 – the year after Ghana became the first African nation to gain independence as Britain, France and Belgium started to recognise the end of colonialism in Africa and began their unseemly withdrawal – Chinua Achebe’s debut novel concerns itself with the events surrounding the start of this disastrous chapter in African history. The first part of a trilogy, Things Fall Apart was one of the first African novels to gain worldwide recognition: half a century on, it remains one of the great novels about the colonial era.
I intend to read the entire trilogy, would you be interested too?